Always looking over your shoulder….part 1

This is the first part of the story of a time in my life I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy but one that has made me who I am today. I am by no means anyone of significance and there are many who have been through challenges I don’t know that I could cope with, but there have also been many that have crossed my path that have found strength from my story. I share it not to big note myself or point fingers but because last night my housemate and I had a frank discussion about life post-cancer and for the first time in years, I didn’t feel alone and that made me realise I might help someone else feel the same if I relive some of my darkest days. Thank you Iain.

1997 was perhaps the worst year of my life – although there have been many significant events throughout the years, that year just plain sucked. It was to be the start of my promising career in the Royal Australian Navy – a journey that my Mum and I had worked together on my gaining entry, one where I’d already received a scholarship for my year 12 (final high school year) studies and one where I had a grand long term career plan of becoming the first female admiral. Although it wasn’t to be, I like to think that without having been through that year, I wouldn’t be the awesome person I am today (don’t get me wrong, I’m human, I still have flaws but I am also still awesome).

I saw in the New Year with my family in my uncle’s house in Brackley – a town in Northamptonshire (which always makes me think of Jane Austen) in central England. My Uncle had dubbed me the Fire Monster because I was always on the floor in front of their faux fireplace (looked like a wood/coal fire but was actually gas). It was a good night even though the family trip home was so sombre. My Mum had been diagnosed terminally ill with cancer. So she made her final trip home to the UK to say goodbye to her family.

While we were away, I got a call to say I had finally cleared medical and was set to join the Navy at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) on the 20th of January – 10 days after we returned from the UK. I was psyched up and relieved that my Mum would rest easier knowing my future was secure. Two days before I left, we went to Sydney to stay with my Godparents (my departure point to go to ADFA was the Sydney recruiting centre). 24hrs out is when all the fun started.

We’d been out for dinner on our first night in Sydney to the Souths Juniors Rugby Club. I remember ordering a medium rare steak. Even though I was 19, I’d rarely eaten steak and I think this was my first real one and I’d ordered it because my Godfather had ordered one and I wanted to show I was strong like him – strange why we do some things! The following morning I started vomiting everything I tried eating. What little food was left in my system was quickly expelled from my bowels and I was wiped out. We all thought it was nerves/excitement and I remember my Mum and Godmother quickly thinking up ideas to get me out of the apartment and enjoying my ‘last deh of FREEEEEDOM’ as my Godmother who had recently watched the movie Braveheart, best put it in her thick Scottish accent. I just wanted to make Mum proud and even though I knew in my heart that she was, my mind was screaming at me – you’re sick but don’t let her know.

Mum had been diagnosed the previous September. By this stage she had clearly shed weight although we never talked about it beyond her joking about all the money she’d wasted over the years on weight loss programs and all she needed to do was get cancer. Even when she was dying she was trying to make life easier for everyone else to cope with.

The following day we went to the recruitment centre to undertake our entry medicals. When I went to weigh in, I hadn’t even thought about having been sick. My weight was a problem though – based on the BMI measures, the lower scale of the healthy weight range for my height (170cm/5”6’) was 58kg (around 128 pounds). The most you could be underweight to join the military was by 4kg (around 9 pounds) but I’d always weighed in at 52kg (115 pounds) right through the scholarship selection process and the entry process. I’d worked hard with a dietician to get my weight up and I had reached 56kg before I went on holidays where I did next to no training while we travelled around the UK. When I stood on the scale, it came up at 52kg….the staff pretended they didn’t see me arrive and asked if I was thirsty suggesting I could have the whole jug of water if I wanted because I’d need to give a urine sample later anyway. I drank the water and weighed in at 54kg. I was off to the academy!

Waving goodbye to my parents, godparents and one of my closest friends Steven (who not only had made the 3hr journey down to see me off but had also been there at the hospital with me while I waited for my family to arrive after Mum had been diagnosed – I was the one who had to break the news to everyone) was one of the most difficult things to stomach. I knew I would see them again but I was losing time with all of them – especially Mum and although we didn’t know it at the time, Steven too.

Our bus stopped on the freeway to Canberra for a light meal – cut sandwiches. I ate one triangle and it took about 20mins after we were back on the bus for it to affect me. I needed to vomit badly. I started to cry not understanding why when I had worked so hard, could my body fail me by being so nervous that I couldn’t hold down food? Some girls that I had met through the recruitment process suggested trying to sleep or listening to some music both which helped keep me calm but I still felt sick.

We arrived at ADFA, met our section commanders, collected our bags and commenced moving through a large auditorium to collect our kitting. It was summer in Canberra and at 7pm at night it was still over 30 degrees and very dry – having come from the coast where it’s humid, it felt really hot. Sweat was pouring out of me and I just wanted to sleep. Once we had everything, our section commander escorted me up to our blocks. I had to ask my section commander 3 times to stop – I was so weak I couldn’t keep up and although I was terrified that I’d be yelled at and I could see he wasn’t impressed, he let me catch my breath, took some of my kitting for me and keep going. The walk would only take 3-4minutes normally when you aren’t pulling luggage etc, but that night I think it took us 15 to 20. When we got up to the block, we left my luggage outside and I was taken up to the rec room to meet the divisional captain – now, still a friend of mine, but then he was one of the hierarchy.

By the time I got to my room and had time to myself, it was around 10pm and it was only just below 30 degrees outside. The following morning reveille was at 6:30am and after hearing in gruff tones what we needed to do, we ran back to our rooms. Craig, my classmate, had arrived after I’d gone to bed. He bolted to the shower, I bolted to the toilet and threw up again – I’d been awake since 5am needing to be sick but was too afraid to leave my room without permission. I ran back to my room, made my bed in the military way, swapped spots with Craig in the bathroom while he ran to his room and then we ran to the landing again ready for our next instruction. The next few hours were a blur – I threw up again at breakfast and by now had confessed to Craig that I thought I was sick. He had been an air force cadet (although he joined the army) and when we filed into the hall for an address by the Commandant and other senior officers he stuck close by my side and introduced me to several people he’d met through cadets over the years. In the middle of the brief a wave of nausea came over me again but there was nothing we could do – we were in the middle of a row in the middle of the hall.

As soon as we were able to get out, I ran to the bathroom again. We were due to go to morning tea but while I was in the bathroom, Craig had approached one of our third years (senior trainees at the academy) and told him how sick I’d been. They took me to the doctor and I was admitted to the Duntroon Hospital – I hadn’t even been at ADFA 24hrs and aside from having my wisdom teeth out in day surgery, I’d never been admitted to hospital in my life. I was grateful to get some more sleep but fretting over what I was missing. This was the start of my life at Duntroon hospital. I say life because over the next two and a half months, I was there no less than 3 days of every week and for someone who never sat still, it was more demoralising than any of the games they played to turn you into a fine military officer. They couldn’t find anything wrong but I’d dropped down to 42kg (92 pounds) in the first 2 weeks.

Between that first day and Easter, I became such a difficult case that the only conclusion was that I was faking it. I had one doctor on my side and between him and the surgeon that operated, they saved my life.

Part 2 to follow soon – I will add some photos once I can lug my photo albums to a scanner.

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